The Rolex Explorer II c.1975-76 sold for a hammer price of £18,200 against an estimate of £7000-10,000 in the Jewellery, Watches, Coins & Silver Auction held in Dudley on February 22.
The auction house’s managing director Chris Aston said: “Our previous record was £18,000 for the 1953 War of The Worlds film poster we sold last January, so this beat it by just one bid.
“We thought pre-sale that it might just do it. We estimated it at £7000-10,000,thought we would probably get £14,000-15,000, but could still do it and get the house record.”
The watch sold to a phone bidder in the UK - who had driven up to view the watch the day before the sale - after a fierce battle against multiple internet bidders as far away as from Malaysia.
The model no 1655, serial no 4067437 watch has a later black leather strap, but was in overall good condition with “a few surface scratches and dinks commensurate with age”. It came with the original box and papers.
Rolex in a carrier bag
This watch had been brought into one of Aston’s weekly free valuation days in December in a carrier bag by a local vendor. He had purchased the watch new in 1976 in Thailand and hadn't worn it for years.
“The box must have been damp wherever he had it kept it, there was a layer of mould on the top of it,” added Aston, “but that’s kind of good. It means it is original, fresh to the market and not messed around with – a one-owner, proper piece.”
The Explorer II 1655 did not prove especially popular when first produced. Aston said: “In most people’s opinions the design with that the orange hour hand is quite ugly really, so I don’t think they sold many of them. But then, although McQueen didn’t wear it in any of the films he was in but just had one himself, he was shown wearing it in quite a few photos. Obviously that makes it infinitely cooler and the fact that it didn’t sell so well means it’s got rarity value anyway.
“It the kind of the same with some of these Star Wars figures we sell. The most expensive ones now are the ones that weren’t popular at the time, so they thought ‘we’re not selling these’ and stopped producing them. As a result they ultimately end up being more expensive.”
The Explorer II 1655 was introduced in 1971. According to an article on bobswatches.com: “It features a fixed stainless-steel bezel and is a GMT Rolex model. The most striking thing about the Rolex Explorer is that it was designed specifically for cave explorers who, due to being in the dark for so many hours at a time, tend to lose their perspective on ‘day’ and ‘night’.
“The 24-hour hand tells you whether the watch is indicating 4am or 4pm, for example. Rolex marketed this as a great feature for divers, spelunkers [cave explorer] or anyone who might be in the dark for some time.
“When the Rolex Explorer 1655 was first marketed, the second had was straight and unremarkable, but the extra hour hand was a bright orange, giving this particular version of the watch its name [the ‘orange hand’ explorer].”
The watch was nor popular during its 1971-85 production run and the orange hand disappeared possibly in the mid-70s.
However, one of the coolest actors of all time has given an uncool watch a modern-day collectors’ appeal.
Paul Newman Daytona Rolex
In October last year a Rolex once owned by actor Paul Newman set an auction record of $15.5m (£11.85m) at Phillips' inaugural watch auction in New York.
The Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Cosmograph Daytona was bought by his wife, Joanne Woodward, around the time he filmed Winning, a 1969 film where he played the racing-car driver Frank Capua. The role sparked Newman’s interest in racing, much to Woodward’s dismay, and this watch is engraved DRIVE CAREFULLY ME.
Daytonas are much sought-after even without such provenance. The current record for a comparable example was set at Phillips in May 2017 when an 18ct yellow gold ‘Paul Newman’ reference 6263 took $3.72m including buyer’s premium.